Women’s History Roundtable February 2019: “What’s Love Got To Do With It? Emotional Labour, Call Centre Work, and Romantic Love” by Dr. Mathangi Krishnamurthy

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Dr. Mathangi Krishnamurthy is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. Her new book “1-800-Worlds: The Making of the Indian Call Centre Economy” published by OUP in 2018 chronicles the labour practices, life-worlds, and media atmospheres of Indian call centre workers, and locates them within the socio-political context of the new Indian middle classes.

 

Dr. Krishnamurthy presented her work at the February edition of Prajyna’s Women’ History Roundtable. She began by describing the difficulties of entering the space of the Call Centre as a researcher and an outsider. At first, she approached the question through the lens of a dichotomy in terms of gender perspectives, examining the different reasons why women and men take on night shifts. She noted that this was particularly relevant given that most call centre employees come from middle-class backgrounds, where discussions about female respectability often include fears about pre-marital liaisons, leading to aborted pregnancies, etc. Given that these discussions are still taking place in the face of increasing globalisation, Dr. Krishnamurthy wanted to examine the place of global capitalism in forcing middle-class women away from institutions of higher education and influencing them to enter into the exploitative labour regime of a call centre, thus changing their life cycles. At first, she tried to interact with call centre employees as a researcher while doing her field work. She noted that she found it difficult to penetrate the wall of secrecy around events within the call centre. So she decided to suspend her fieldwork and began to apply for jobs in call centres. She found that she was not eligible for any of the jobs, being older than the age limit of 26 years. A friend suggested that she should apply to be a call centre American accent trainer instead, and with some help from an Indo-American friend, she was able to master the required accent. This allowed her to get a job at a call centre, and her observations on gender, capital, and globalisation in the call centre became the theme of her research, constituting her first book.

 

Dr. Krishnamurthy explained that each new employee goes through a process of acclimatisation, adjusting to the artificial environment of the call centre that prioritises “feeling good” and discourages employees, managers and others who inhabit the space from feeling otherwise through its training practices. The space of the call centre is created on the basis on flexible capital and flexible labour (i.e. interchangeable labour). Most new entrants therefore slowly come to accept flexible labour as their natural way of life. This acceptance is helped along by the repetitive nature of the work – there is no “buzz” or challenge in the actual work, but most employees seem to find it addictive and have difficulty transitioning to a more daytime-oriented routine of work. This artificial environment is created in part by enforcing arbitrary tea and lunch breaks during the night – at a time when it is not really natural for us to eat. This sort of reprogramming of the body clock encourages employees to embrace the artificial environment and schedule.

 

Dr. Krishnamurthy’s research was particularly focussed on the experience of women employees, in an environment where gender plays a major role in the constitution of the workspace. Women are encouraged to leave at the age of 22, but men often stay on for longer. This creates a highly gendered environment, as age and gender differences create power hierarchies. Young women (aged 18-21 years) make up the bulk of the female population in call centres, and are enticed by visions of upward mobility as their salaries can be put towards EMIs as they work towards building a different life for their families. If their parents are reluctant to permit them to work at call centres, the parent too receive counselling pointing out that this job offer is an opportunity for a middle class family to access social and economic progress and better their situation.

 

All these tactics work towards putting a high burden on young women. Apart from the obvious difficulties of being tasked with improving the lives of their parents and family, they often have difficulty finding accommodation due to the unconventional working working hours required by their jobs. In addition, the creation of this artificial “feel-good” environment encourages women to aspire to call centre jobs rather than college degrees, leading to a complete breakdown in the education system – in more ways than one. It is not just their formal education that suffers from a lack of college education, but call centres also take the place of colleges as a “community” which teaches young women how to socialise, especially with the opposite gender.

 

This replacement of the college by the call centre often means that romantic encounters in the workplace become a part of the “desiring complex” that is built within the call centre – the job itself is advertised as being desirable, so it is natural that romantic desire becomes entangled with job-related desire. This desire complex is reinforced in every aspect of the job – recruitment, retainment, and even exit interviews. Since the cost of hiring and training a new employee is high, the employer goes to great lengths to try an retain young women in call centre jobs during the exit interview. Especially if the employee is a “high performer”, the management often makes it difficult to allow her to move out of the job by offering high incentives to stay.

Dr. Krishnamurthy’s presentation was followed by a lively discussion about the status of employees, particularly the relations between male and female employees, and the emotions of the women in call centres towards their colleagues and supervisors.

Notes for this Roundtable were taken by Sudaroli Ramasamy

#Metoo #Youtoo, Survivors Together by Sudha Umashankar: Campaign Edition of the Women’s History Roundtable

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Sudha Umashankar is a freelance journalist and storyteller

The December edition of the Women’s History Roundtable was a special edition of the WHRT series, designed to be a part of the  2018 16 Days Campaign Against Gender Violence, and was presented by Sudha Umashankar.

 

This session of the WHRT series was based on storytelling and sharing in the era of the Me Too movement, which has sparked discussions about sexual harassment (particularly in the workplace) around the world.

 

Sudha Umashankar opened her session by narrating two stories. The first one was about 17 year old Sasirekha, one of four children. She had two sisters, and a trans brother, Naresh. Their mother was a cook. The family was ostracised because of Naresh. Sasirekha, a school dropout, worked in a garment factory. Her brother Naresh, who doted on her, did odd jobs, mainly associated with deity processions. The supervisor at  Sasirekha’s workplace was a married man named Devanaiyakam. He had the habit of constantly commenting on the girls and using nicknames for girls. He would come behind the girls while they are working in the pretext of checking their work and get uncomfortably physical with them. However, Sasirekha brushed off these incidents as demonstrations of sociability. One day he grabbed her bottom, but being a habitual offender he was able to talk himself out of it. One day he called her inside his room and forced himself on her. Confused, Sasirekha didn’t know if it was love or something else. He continued to force her to have sex with him, and Sasirekha soon found she was pregnant. She couldn’t tell her family. When she couldn’t hide it anymore, she told Devanaiyakam about it and asked him to marry her. But he refused saying he was already married, and her pregnancy was not his problem. On top of that, he accused her of not being “careful”. Unable to bear the shame, Sasirekha consumed rat poison and took her life.

 

The second story was about Sharanya, a talented singer and veena player. She wasn’t popular or a playback singer but she was invited to perform in smaller events in her community. She was married with children. Though she had many professional engagements, Sharanya struggled with her high pitch. To improve her voice, she started looking out for advertisements for voice coaches and came across one in the paper. He was a young voice coach and she really liked his classes and paid in full for his workshop. One day at his class as her time was up and she was preparing to leave, he suggested he would give her the feedback over the phone in the evening. In the evening, while Sharanya sang her song, the coach gave her really good feedback, saying she needs to sing from her diaphragm and that he would show her how in their next class. She could sense that he was slightly inebriated in the phone. The next day, as Sharanya went to her class, the voice coach was alone at home and took her to a room upstairs where he made her lay on a table and started touching her middle to show where her voice should come from. This made Sharanya extremely uncomfortable and she soon grabbed her things and ran from there, forced to forego her dream of perfecting her high pitch.

 

Sudha then opened the floor for discussion, asking for comments on these stories from various perspectives. Dr. Sissira (a psychiatrist)commented on the trauma both the victims had faced. While one didn’t have the support system to fall back on, the other reacted based on her instinct. R.S.Akhila (a lawyer) was asked to comment on the legal recourses and if there was an increase in the number of women who approached for legal help post the metoo. Akhila noted that there has been an increase in the number of women who called to inquire about legal recourses since the spread of the metoo movement. However, not many women followed up these initial queries to seek legal redress.

 

Given these expert opinions, the discussion then moved on to the question of what justice entails when it comes to sexual harassment. By inquiring about legal redress or even trying to reach out to networks of support to deal with the emotional effects of such incidents, what are women looking for when they reveal incidents such as those described in the stories above, and the many similar disclosures on social media? Is it closure, justice, or perhaps revenge? While many agreed that they were indeed looking for justice, the form it takes is often hazy. What does justice constitute? It might mean different things for different people. Sudha’s stories raised important questions surrounding the Me Too movement, thus demonstrating the effectiveness of storytelling and sharing as a tool of analysis.

After a short reading from Roxanne Gay’s book, Not That Bad, participants concluded that women are more than just their body. However, in the eyes of the government and law, women have been infantilised. Social conditioning through childhood and adolescence lead most women to brush off such incidents, and many are encouraged to  “move on” from the bad experience. Of course, responses to sexual harassment can vary and the best course of action depends on an individual’s vulnerabilities and strengths. Many voiced the need for teaching the children at home and at school to break free of gender stereotypes in order to address how best to minimise sexual harassment. As a society, we fail to invest the social and money capital on women. The men have survived the metoo movement, whereas the women are still surviving.

Notes taken by Sudaroli Ramasamy.

Women’s History Roundtable, October 2018: Muthulakshmi Reddy and the Making of a Feminist Public by Professor S Anandhi

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Dr. Anandhi’s presentation focussed on Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi, and placed her within the broader context of the creation of a feminist public sphere in late colonial south India. Dr. Anandhi argued that Reddi’s story is an important component of this process, as her name is ubiquitous in Madras, and has been associated with a number of initiatives (many of which do not actually reflect her politics or views). Dr. Anandhi explained that an examination of the mainstream public sphere in the first half of the 20th century in south India does not accurately or adequately represent the political discourse of the times, as it was defined by elite bourgeois men who incorporated women into their political agenda to suit their own vision of reform and Indian revival. This is particularly evident in the matter of women’s education, which ‘progressive’ male leaders felt was the best way to demonstrate that India was a modern nation, ready for self-rule. None of these leaders felt women’s education was an end in itself to benefit women.

 

Given that the public sphere was defined and inhabited by elite men, Dr. Anandhi suggested the rise of a “counter” public sphere during the same era – a feminist one, created and defined by women. Many women’s organisations gained prominence during the 1920s, but the earliest feminist organisation in India was one co-founded by Reddi in 1917: the Women’s Indian Association (WIA). Dr. Anandhi therefore noted that by studying the life-story of Reddi, we could gain some insights into the nature of this alternative public space defined by women, particularly because Reddi and others shifted the debates about progress and nationalism by extending it into the domestic sphere, so women could relate to these questions more effectively.

 

At the centre of Dr. Anandhi’s presentation was a reading of Reddi’s autobiography, which was published in 1929. Dr. Anandhi suggested that Reddi’s autobiography was not simply a story of her life, but a more political manifesto of her ideas. Though Reddi was fortunate to have the support of her father in her educational endeavours, she found schools and colleges were male-dominated institutions, with policies that often ended up preventing women from accessing education. In her autobiography, she suggests that women themselves should marshall forces to help educate each other, with more educated women sharing their knowledge. Reddi’s autobiography thus calls for the creation of a collective female public sphere based on the shared experience of being denied access to male-dominated public spaces.

 

Dr. Anandhi went on to discuss Reddi’s interest in the uplift of Devadasis, for which she is probably best remembered today. Though other sources tell us of Reddi’s own personal investment in the community, Dr. Anandhi noted that there was nothing in her autobiography – an otherwise candid document – to tell the reader about it. Instead, she seems more interested in talking about her own life story.

 

In detailing Reddi’s activities for the uplift of women through the WIA, Avvai Home, and the national movement; Dr. Anandhi noted that all her political work was based on helping to improve the status of Indian women. For example, Reddi made several suggestions to the Simon Commission about how to improve women’s access to education as well as what the curriculum should consist of in order to create a class of educated and employable women. Dr. Anandhi noted that this reframing of the public sphere by a ‘politics of care’ allowed more women to participate through the framework of ‘helping’ their countrywomen access education and healthcare.

 

Questions and discussion after Dr. Anandhi’s presentation revolved around Reddi’s family support; her sometimes contentious relationship with the Congress party; her exchanges with Gandhi, and her role in creating transnational feminist connections.

 

This report was compiled by Dr. Swarna Rajagopalan

 

Women’s History Roundtable July 2018: Gulika Reddy on Gender and Activism in Schools and Beyond

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Our WHRT speaker on July 14th was Gulika Reddy. Gulika Reddy is a human rights lawyer and also the founder of Schools of Equality, a nonprofit which runs programmes in schools, encouraging students to think about equality and diversity.

 

Gulika began by tracing her own interest in human rights law, particularly women’s rights. In her early years in the profession, she often heard certain lawyers justify domestic abuse and ask victims to let it go, in order to “save the institution of marriage”. This discourse brought home the importance of women’s rights and discrimination and violence against women. After regular interaction in the social justice sector, she started Schools of Equality to provide experiential and activity based learning to help increase awareness on gender based discrimination and violence.

 

Gulika then introduced the audience to two activities that they used in schools.

 

In the first activity, the audience was asked to talk about what words came to their minds when they heard the words “masculinity” and “femininity”. The responses ranged from muscular, bold, strong, assertive to fragile, lucky and non vulnerable for the former; and dainty, shy, fragile, passive, hysterical, emotional and nurturing for the latter.

 

For the next activity, the audience was asked to get up and walk around and find a partner, and ask and answer the following questions:

  1. What is one thing which is usually ascribed to your gender, which you actually like doing?
  2. What is one thing which is usually ascribed to your gender, which you dislike doing?
  3. What is one thing which is not ascribed to your gender, which you wish you could do without being judged?

 

The responses ranged from nurturing children, housework, dressing up and cooking (for the first two questions), and sitting in a particular way, having to justify things for the last question. The audience was then asked how such issues could be combated. Two members shared experiences of how they broke such stereotypes, by calling out rigid and sexist office rules, and by teaching their own children and family members about problematic mindsets.

 

Gulika continued the session by talking about her work at the schools they interacted with. Schools of Equality does sessions for children, parents and teachers; and she spoke about the different issues and situations that crop up while interacting with each target group. She noted that for children below a certain age, they mostly did sessions on bullying; while for older children they focused on sex education and gender identity awareness. SoE started off with two schools and did a baseline survey, after which they started taking workshops to different places; and now they operate in both Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

 

Gulika went on to emphasise the importance of having conversations with people about issues of gender, regardless of how averse they may be to the topic. She talked about how sometimes in classrooms, when students open up about certain issues they’ve faced, their peers learn a lot more from the sharing of experiences rather than textbook material on awareness. She then opened the floor for questions, and had small discussions on issues of scaling, combining training teachers and teaching students, and the relevance and utility of law in the battle for social justice. The session ended with some informal discussions within the group.

 

This report was compiled by Malavika Ravi. 

Women’s History Roundtable: June 2018 Bader Sayeed on “Gender Justice and Personal Law”

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Bader Sayeed is an eminent lawyer who practices at the Madras High Court. She is also the founder of the NGO Roshni.

Ms. Sayeed spoke about some recent developments in Muslim Personal Law, devoting considerable time to the question of the abolition of the triple talaq. However, she made it very clear that legislation (however progressive) could only be effective with thoughtful implementation as well as a focus on changing societal mindsets. At a time when people in power can make inflammatory statements about religion and gender (including rape threats), legislation is but the first step.

Ms. Sayeed, in fact, was of the opinion that the Indian constitution was an excellent one, and emphasised equality and secularism. However, in reality, the spirit of the constitution is being betrayed everyday by the arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions imposed by those in positions of power (for example, the ban on beef). Noting the treatment meted out to Dalits in particular, Ms. Sayeed wondered where the principle of liberty and dignity of the individual had been lost since the writing of the Constitution.

Being an experienced lawyer, Ms. Sayeed also admitted the difficulty of fighting injustice in India – even in the courts. For example, while she obtained an injunction overturning the validity of certificated of divorced issued by Qazis, she was distressed to note that these certificates still continued to be considered valid in various communities. In this way, Ms. Sayeed drove home the point that legislation can only go so far in improving the rights and status of women and minorities in India.

Ms. Sayeed concluded by noting that while Indian legislation contains adequate protection for women and minorities, it is necessary for society (especially those in power) to change their mindset and espouse a more secular attitude towards our countrymen and women. In addition, Ms. Sayeed believed that the Constitution of India is still sound, and there is no need for additional legislation to improve upon in. What is necessary is for more Indians to read and understand the Constitution of India.

 

This report was compiled by Prajnya’s interns, Athmika and Varsha

Revived! Women’s History Roundtable Series: Post-colonial India’s Women Doctors

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On Saturday, October 14th, 2017, we revived our Women’s History Roundtable Series which had fallen by the wayside because of our struggles finding a venue. We decided to go back to our original ways–to find a cafe and we picked Writer’s Cafe to try.  Archana Venkatesh, veteran volunteer, doctoral candidate at Ohio State University and Saakshi Fellow, opened the fourth series and will coordinate for a year.

Women's History Roundtable Series (2)

Private Lives, Public Work:
Women Doctors at work and home in Post-Colonial India

Archana Venkatesh

Abstract:

Women doctors in post-colonial India were an integral part of the developmental regime envisaged by policy makers in the field of public health, especially in efforts to control overpopulation and regulate maternal and infant health in a newly independent nation. In this paper, I examine the life and work of women doctors in post-colonial India using data from twenty oral history interviews conducted with women doctors aged 75-95 years, active in the medical profession from 1950 to 1990 collectively. Oral history interviews provide a counter narrative to the ‘official discourse’. I demonstrate that while the state encouraged women to embrace the medical profession by deploying tools such as affirmative action and scholarships, this attitude did not always permeate the home and the workplace. Many women doctors note that medical colleges and hospitals were highly gendered spaces, something that was particularly apparent during the process of selecting specializations – many were shepherded into the ‘feminine’ fields of obstetrics and gynecology, or pediatrics. However, any expression of dissatisfaction was deemed to undercut their goal of ‘serving the new nation’ by participating in the medical profession. This paper examines how women doctors negotiated competing demands, between national service and individual goals, and between professional responsibilities and domestic expectations. Using oral history as a method, this paper sheds light on the ways in which everyday practitioners, i.e. women doctors, negotiated their participation in the creation and evolution of the developmental state in post-colonial India.

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